Editor's note: This review, written by Joe Gandelman, was initially published at The Moderate Voice, and has been reposted with permission. The original page can be found here.
If there is ever a movie that cries out for being seen NOW it’s filmmaker Robert Rippberger’s 7 Days in Syria. When it was completed some months ago it was a solid documentary about the Syrian Civil War that took you so inside the devastation that you could almost smell the aftermath of guns and missiles, feel the ragged rubble, and touch the warm tears being shed; it embedded you in the heads of the the brave and perhaps ultimately doomed people battling the brutal al-Assad regime. The unflinching camera recorded their daily hopes and horrors and, in a quintessential display of the power of film, made these hopes and horrors the viewers’ own.
But now, in the light ISIS’ terrorist attack in Paris, and how Syrians, Syrian refugees and Muslims in general are being made political footballs and being stereotyped, watching 7 Days in Syria has become more urgent than ever.
If you could make a documentary required viewing, 7 Days in Syria would be it.
Why? Because it shows what the refugees today are fleeing from and undermines the stereotypes political demagogues are now painting — as skillfully as Renoir — of them and of all Muslims, as a group. Here’s a preview:
This haunting film’s genesis was when journalist and Newsweek Middle East expert Janine di Giovanni tried to get publications to green-light her trip to Syria. They said definitely not because Syria is literally one of the most dangerous places on earth. So she went anyway and is one of the producers of this film. Key destination: Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, where Islamists and the Free Syrian Army were battling the merciless, seemingly sadistic al-Assad regime.
Journalism is now an increasingly risky business — and not just because of the economy. According to the Committee to Protect journalists, 61 were killed in 2014 and 45 so far this year. The Committee has declared Syria the most dangerous place in the world for journalists, where it reports 69 have been killed since the current conflict began in 2011. But in 2013 the Union of Syrian Journalists put the number higher: 150 journalists killed since the conflict began. In September, the New York Times put the total number of people killed at more than 200,000.
Working as a foreign correspondent has always been risky. No matter how great the communications, the reporter isn’t on American soil and must be out there…isolated. I had it easy when I worked as a freelance journalist in India, Bangladesh and Spain in the 1970s and as a newspaper reporter for the San Diego Union reporting on Baja California and the September 1984 Mexico City earthquake. Foreign correspondents today are highly sought after hostages and targets. More than ever, reporters willingly put their lives on the line. And that’s just in some countries where editors want them to be stationed.
The risk to reporters is not the major theme of 7 Days in Syria, but it lingers there and is communicated as sharply as swift kick between the legs — and not through preaching. Di Giovanni and co-producer Nicole Tung are out there examining Aleppo’s mind-boggling rubble and talking to people and the subject comes up about the kidnappings of James Foley (later beheaded) and John Cantile (whereabouts still unknown). A particularly chilling scene is when Di Giovanni discusses their missing friends with journalist Steven Sotloff — who was later himself kidnapped and beheaded and featured in one of those obscene ISIS snuff films put on the web.
It’s clear that di Giovanni is motivated by the desire to know, understand, and get the word out abou what’s going on in a segment of the world where despite headlines and statistics some struggling people and the horrors and burdens of their world are virtually forgotten.
The bulk of Rippberger’s at times poignant and at times traumatic film is on the brave, often endearing, people of all ages who try to live a “normal life,” and risk it all trying to dislodge a merciless regime today propped up by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian military. War, with stunning speed, turned their lives upside down. Suddenly, they must scramble for food, wait in long lines for bread; their kids can’t go to school, and danger literally lurks at every corner — and from every sky. Filming was done before Putin officially entered the fray, big-time, to help his Middle East best bud.
The camera offers a big menu of snippets of Syrian life, and much is hard to digest. Little kids, playing in rubble. A dead infant in a clinic; there wasn’t medicine. People stepping in to make bread, even though they are threatened by the regime with death if they do. Streets commonly punctuated by sniper fire. People grieving lost friends, or people who they didn’t know who they saw die at not ripe old ages and not of natural causes. Family get togethers with young and old people joking and singing as families anywhere do. The faces of little kids: how long will they live and how will they live? A battle where a man is fatally wounded. All set against an urban panorama resembling a photo of England after a World War II Nazi bombing.
The camera recording this via cinematographers Patrick Wells and Matthew VanDyke is unsparing. When Di Giovani explains she’s there to tell “a story that the people are unable to tell themselves,” it proves to be an understatement given the way the documentary ends. No spoiler here except to say a young woman sadly recounts a brutal event and then…..
The film’s final moments, from the segment with her until the film’s final seconds, linger.
7 Days in Syria allows all who want to know what Syrians are like to watch and listen to people who are Muslim who don’t fit the neat stereotype that wins votes and builds audience share for wealthy, fear-mongering talk and cable show hosts.
Footnote: With a name like “Gandelman” I’m clearly not a Muslim. But I lived with a Muslim family in Bangladesh a year or two after the 1973 Arab-Israeli Yom Kippur war when I was a freelance based in India. The head of that family stayed for a week at my house with me and my parents when he visited the US in 1979. In recent years, in my non-writing incarnation as a nationally performing entertainer, I’ve done shows at several Muslim schools and did a show at mosque after prayers. They all knew I was Jewish. But it didn’t make a difference. Extremists and cultists do not typify any one religion — although there are those who, due to their hatred and/or their desire to whip up fear and resentment for political power at any cost, will try to convince others that they do.
What you see in this film are people trapped in a world of constant danger and lack, people whose stories are not sufficiently (even partially) told by headlines or statistics.
Angelina Jolie saw the film and correctly nailed it:“7 Days in Syria gives a window into the lives of families struggling to survive on the frontlines of the Syria conflict. Their courage and resilience shines through in impossible circumstances.”
The question now becomes: how many of those have we seen in this film have been injured or killed during Putin’s last big assault on Aleppo? UK’s Express reports: ”Moscow warplanes conducted 141 missions over the country at the weekend as the Kremlin’s Su-34 bombers torpedoed an oil refinery controlled by the depraved terror group. The latest demolition saw more than 1,000 tankers controlled by ISIS destroyed. Among the cities pounded by the former Soviets were the capital Damascus, Aleppo, Homs as well as Raqqa – the terror group’s stronghold.” Several analysts on American cable shows have argued Aleppo has not been considered a major hotbed of ISIS.
Putin does not distinguish between ISIS and those resisting the al-Assad regime, which he seeks to prop up. And we’re seeing conflicting reports. Russia Today reported Putin saying the Free Syrian Army is cooperating with him to share intelligence on ISIS. He insisted that this “proves once again that we are not bombing the so-called moderate opposition or the civilian population.” Other reports insist Russian bombings are indeed aimed at wiping out rebels as well as ISIS. One website even alleged that there is a secret deal between the U.S and Russia to let Putin attack the rebels first, and then ISIS — as long as Russia goes after ISIS.
Right now 7 Days in Syria is being seen at festivals and won an “Outstanding Achievement Media Award” for 2015 from the Fingal Film Festival in Ireland. It hasn’t been released yet — and the sooner it is, the better.
Two months ago you could say it needed to be released, so that the people living their lives decimated by upheaval could escape being forgotten and be heard.
Now, in light of Paris and political developments, it’s important the film be released so the people in the film could be seen and heard to counter the bigots and politicians who seek to negatively define them.
Their voices need to be heard, their plight needs to be witnessed, their hearts need to be understood.
And 7 Days in Syria does it for them.
Some of the film’s credits: DIRECTOR
Janine Di Giovanni